Bias in Education

Teachers Perceive Higher "Conflict" With Black Boys Than White Girls

Nationwide study reveals that systemic racism impacts teacher-student relationships as early as kindergarten.

Originally Published: 
Serious male teacher helps or disciplines a male middle school student during class. The teacher has...
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A new study has uncovered troubling trends in how teachers perceive their relationships with students of different races and genders. The nationally representative survey of 9,190 participants found that teachers, regardless of race, rated their perceived conflict with Black boys in kindergarten as almost 40% higher than their conflict with white girls.

“Because we used a large, nationally representative dataset and controlled for the effects of family socioeconomic status, we were able to isolate the role of racism and sexism in teachers’ perceptions of their relationships with students in the early elementary grades,” study author Kathleen Rudasill, Ph.D., interim dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education, said in a statement. “I hope that this research will help further illuminate the toll of white supremacy on students of color at the start of their school journey.”

Compounding the issue, teachers’ perceived levels of conflict with Black second-grade boys increased by 8% compared to their kindergarten counterparts, while their perceived conflict with white boys, white girls, and Black girls remained about the same.

And although teachers’ ratings of closeness with all students declined from kindergarten to second grade, their closeness with Black boys lagged behind all other groups, with teachers feeling closest to white girls.

Additionally, the study found that families' socioeconomic status affected teachers’ perceptions of their relationships with Black boys. For Black boys from families with a higher socioeconomic status, teachers’ perceptions of conflict decreased from kindergarten through second grade. But levels of perceived conflict did not decline for Black boys from households with lower socioeconomic status.

These new insights provide additional context for previous reporting from Fatherly about how the implementation of school suspensions — driven in part by teachers’ perceptions of conflict — is demonstrably racist and has long-lasting negative ramifications on students of color. These include lower grade point averages, higher dropout rates, and risk of depression, aggression, and behavior problems in the short-term; and economic hardship, marital conflict, and illegal activity in the long-term.

The study authors did identify possible avenues for teachers to address the effects of white privilege and systemic racism in education. These include comprehensive anti-racism education, implementing cultural competency interventions like “self-checks” for bias, and cultural competency skill-building for teachers that “place an emphasis on diversity, tolerance, and respect for others, knowledge of cultural perceptions, examination of personal suppositions and biases, and the development of strategies for removing racial barriers.”

“Teachers are a mostly white — approximately 80% — workforce,” Rudasill said. “As such, they have lived and been educated in primarily segregated environments, with very little exposure to individuals or cultures beyond that of the dominant European American culture. If pre-service and in-service teachers are aware of the potential biases they have owing to systemic racism and if they are provided with opportunities to learn how to check their potential biases, racial disparities can be reduced.”

With kids experiencing systemic racial bias at such a young age, parents are encouraged to start talking about racism and racial bias with kids of all races early on.

“It is essential that all parents speak to their children about race, the importance of compassion, and empathy to truly make this world a better place for us all. We should not pretend that racism does not exist,” developmental and behavioral pediatrician Dr. Eboni Smith Hollier previously told Fatherly.

Not sure where to start? Sesame Street and CNN teamed up for a town hall about racism a couple of years ago that is, unfortunately, still far too applicable. And among Ibram X. Kendi’s work on anti-racism, his book How To Raise an Antiracist breaks down how to broach the complex topic in developmentally appropriate ways for children of all ages.

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